Larry The Great

Lawrence Rhodes opens doors at Juilliard with a pluralistic approach and collaborative spirit.

Rhodes' celebrated ballet class gives dancers space to work on their bodies and technique at their own pace, says longtime colleague Alexandra Wells.

Lawrence Rhodes will tell you that he doesn’t really have a vision. In conversation, he will reduce his seven years as director of the dance division at The Juilliard School to a single sentence—“A program like this should reflect the intensity of the professional dance world.” But his faculty colleagues, his students and virtually anyone to whom you talk in the dance world will inform you, with uncommon passion, that his transformation of one of America’s most prominent dance conservatories has been insightful, pragmatic, humane and, yes, despite his modesty, visionary.

The verdict is that Rhodes, an extraordinarily versatile and peripatetic dancer in the earlier stage of his career, has built on a solid foundation at Juilliard and fashioned a model of enlightened pedagogy that may resound beyond the profession. The public has long recognized the Juilliard brand as the most distinguished the music world can offer. With Rhodes at the helm, it’s dance’s turn now.

The metamorphosis of the 58-year-old dance division started at the top. “Juilliard’s president, Joseph Polisi, has given me total cooperation,” says Rhodes in a conversation from his Lincoln Center office. “He thought we were ready to progress to the next level, and didn’t care that the effort might be different or cost more money.”

Juilliard starts also with an illustrious faculty and a host of the country’s most promising young dancers. Of the more than 450 who audition annually for the freshman class, only 24 (12 of each gender) are admitted, and no more than 96 students participate in the program at any one time. When they graduate with BFA degrees, opportunity beckons. They join ballet and modern companies here and abroad. Or they journey a mile south of the campus to Broadway. Or they may even sign up for a stint in the far-flung Cirque du Soleil empire.

But it’s what happens to these dancers in the four years between enrollment and graduation that tells the real story of Rhodes’ accomplishment. Of what should an education in dance consist? Shouldn’t it be more than a passkey to a paycheck? Those were the questions that obsessed Rhodes when he returned to New York after a decade running Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal to succeed the late Benjamin Harkarvy at Juilliard in June 2002.

One of the few things I thought was really important to the program was to open the door,” says Rhodes. “Yes, we were like a family, but it had been a kind of closed shop here, with very few outside choreographers engaged. There were so many people around who had never been here and never exposed to the students in a real way, and vice versa.”

The result has been a substantial change in the Juilliard performance schedule. The spring concert continues to highlight the year’s activities: Repertory dances by Mark Morris, Ohad Naharin, Lar Lubovitch and Twyla Tharp (with most of the choreographers tending rehearsals) enchanted press and public in March 2009. Not quite good enough for Rhodes, however. In terms of the overall program, he sensed that something was lacking and the dancers articulated his intuition.

The students were rehearsing endlessly for this concert. I felt that they were more efficient than that, and they let me know after a while that it was not thrilling to drill rep like that,” he says. “Also, I had noticed that the visiting choreographers quickly chose whom they wanted to work with. The best dancers were in two or three of the pieces and a large segment of the school population was left out. I felt that wasn’t just. I felt that performance was part of the educational experience, part of the life.”

The solution? A fall project that Rhodes has dubbed New Dances, a commissioning program with a few strings attached. As Rhodes describes it, “four choreographers are each assigned a class and they are required to use the entire class. So, when we get to December, we have four premieres and 92 dancers on the big stage. Everyone has been part of the creative process.” Last year’s quartet of dancemakers included Larry Keigwin, Sidra Bell, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Johannes Wieland. Andrea Miller and Stijn Celins are among the choreographers promised for fall 2009.

New York–based Keigwin has repeatedly visited Juilliard as part of this program and he is not reticent to tell you why: “Larry Rhodes is a gracious host to dancemaking, dance appreciation and dance going. He is easy to collaborate with and seems to always observe the creative process with a smile.”

Offstage, Rhodes’ curriculum innovations have met with comparable responses. He has introduced an anatomy course as a third-year requirement, a slam-dunk in his opinion. “This was an elective before I arrived. But that’s ridiculous. In Irene Dowd, we have on the staff one of the world’s great anatomists and kinesiologists,” he says, adding, “The dancers didn’t like it at first.”

Yet, in time, the course has been cordially received. As graduating senior Spenser Theberge says, “I am now able to pinpoint the places in my body that trouble me. Now, I know what a bone looks like and how it attaches. Your body, after all, is your instrument.”

In addition, Rhodes has imposed a mandatory acting class (ex-student Corey Scott-Gilbert, now with LINES Ballet, recalls that “it pushed us in ways that we didn’t think we could go”) and made one-semester courses in creative process (involving collaboration and improvisation) and music and dance required steps to a degree. Rhodes cautions, though, that true musicality cannot be taught. “It is a gift. It inhabits the body,” he states.

And in Rhodes’ celebrated ballet class, he allows that gift to blossom. Students, past and present, as well as colleagues, laud the experience. Notes the Juilliard faculty’s Alexandra Wells: “Some classes are so technically impossible that, by the time you leave the room, you’re so depressed you can barely put one foot in front of the other. Larry’s class gives dancers space to work on their bodies and their technique at their own pace. It sets you up for the whole day.”

If the curriculum at Juilliard is evolving, so are the qualities that Rhodes sees in this new generation of students. “I don’t know how this happens, but physical potential and physical gifts are growing. These people seem to be much more flexible than they ever were in my day,” says Rhodes. “There’s a huge amount of hypermobility, too, which brings problems. These students are exposed to a lot of dancing, but it’s of the commercial variety, on TV and in clubs. It’s much more a part of their lives than when I was a kid. But then they come to this city and see an enormous amount of dance, and that, too, is a big part of their education.”

Rhodes has gone far in demolishing the image of Juilliard as a professional dancer mill. “While it is true that, especially in classroom work, the students function as a group, the truth,” he says, “is that we have now moved into a time of individual care. That means we all look at a student’s needs on a one-by-one basis. Does he need weight training? Does she need Pilates? And what should they do with their summers?”

Juilliard seniors, Rhodes says, benefit from a great deal of advisement, including the preparation of CVs and DVDs and personally tailored career suggestions. At one time, Juilliard had acquired the reputation of a feeder school for a mere handful of professional companies (notably Limón and Nederlands Dans Theater). Rhodes maintains a more pluralistic attitude; he will gently guide his students to the right job, appraising their strengths and channeling their preferences. “It’s simply realistic,” he says.

To bridge that transition from classroom to career, Rhodes led a European tour (Caen, Paris and Dresden) of the senior dance concert this spring. And to that end, he has launched a program for seniors in which choreographers will teach a class or a repertory piece in special sessions. “My motivation is to introduce a lot of students to a lot of creative people and the way those people move and rehearse. And the choreographers are also introduced to the students, so they’re not strangers.”

That process is what led senior Aaron Carr to join Keigwin + Company for next year. And the personalized teacher-student relationship, an approach for which Rhodes was celebrated when he ran the New York University dance program decades ago, has left its mark on a generation of Juilliard students.

I like to find a connection with my teachers and Larry has always been so open to that,” says Theberge, who heads for NDT 2 this summer. “He has been a great mentor beyond the classroom. I hope he’ll be a mentor long after my Juilliard years.”

Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor and contributes to dance and music publications in the U.S. and abroad.

Photo by Rachel Papo

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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